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Francona's foresight leaves Tribe prepared

Tribe manager chose to pitch Kluber in Game 2 so ace would be on normal rest if needed again
MLB.com @castrovince

NEW YORK -- From the day Terry Francona announced his pitching plan for the American League Division Series presented by Doosan, his language was, by his standards, oddly conciliatory.

It is, after all, Francona's "you can't win today if you're thinking at about tomorrow" (or words to that effect) mantra that has been embraced so completely by his clubhouse. It has served as the backbone of the organizational success of the Tribe's Tito era, to say nothing of the AL-record 22-game winning streak this season.

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NEW YORK -- From the day Terry Francona announced his pitching plan for the American League Division Series presented by Doosan, his language was, by his standards, oddly conciliatory.

It is, after all, Francona's "you can't win today if you're thinking at about tomorrow" (or words to that effect) mantra that has been embraced so completely by his clubhouse. It has served as the backbone of the organizational success of the Tribe's Tito era, to say nothing of the AL-record 22-game winning streak this season.

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So it was unusual last week to hear Francona talk about how holding Corey Kluber back until Game 2 against the Yankees made sense because it kept the AL Cy Young Award favorite on regular rest for a potential Game 5. Naturally, a team has to think ahead about all potential outcomes in a best-of-five set (as Kluber so eloquently put it, "You don't want to get caught with your pants down"). But to publicly prioritize the back end of the series and not the front was odd talk from Tito.

"Not that you go into a game thinking you're going to lose," Francona said. "But if you do, you have your ace coming back. The biggest thing was keeping him on his five-day [routine]."

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Whether Kluber's extra day of rest before Game 2 was a culprit in his uncharacteristic struggles against the Yankees is anybody's guess. But in the wake of the error-prone pileup that was a 7-3 loss in Game 4 on Monday night at Yankee Stadium, the Indians got what they planned for now: It's Kluber, on four days' rest, in Game 5 at 8 p.m. on Wednesday night at Progressive Field. And he's either going to help the Yanks encroach rare historical terrain, or he's going to stop them in their tracks, as intended.

"It's hard to imagine giving [the ball] to somebody better," Francona said.

The Indians are, frankly, fortunate to be in this position. If not for Yankees manager Joe Girardi's instantly infamous non-challenge of a phantom hit-by-pitch of Lonnie Chisenhall in the sixth inning of Game 2 -- the one that immediately preceded the grand slam that still stands as Francisco Lindor's only hit in this series -- this thing might be over by now. Lindor's 352-foot fly ball in Game 3 wouldn't have been out in the majority of Major League parks, and it wasn't out in Yankee Stadium, where the so-called "short porch" looks shorter still when 6-foot-7 right fielder Aaron Judge is standing in front of it. And if the Yanks didn't already have the momentum going into Game 4, the Tribe's inability to make accurate throws pushed them right along on their path.

Video: CLE@NYY Gm4: Francona on Urshela, errors in Game 4

While Cleveland's pitching plan looked brilliant after Bauer's gem in Game 1, the real wart was revealed Monday. The Indians used their starters on short rest out of necessity in their injury-riddled run to Game 7 of the World Series last year, and they went 1-4 in those games. Their starters, including Bauer, had a 6.75 ERA in those games.

In other words, it didn't work particularly well, and in the long history of teams desperately going against rest convention on the season's biggest stage, it doesn't work all that often. It definitely didn't work for Bauer in Game 4, in which he was unable to pitch through the defensive foibles taking place around him.

Take all of the above in conjunction with what they did against Kluber in Game 2 (six runs on seven hits with two homers in 2 2/3 innings), and the Yankees have every reason to be confident going into the culmination. Perhaps in a year in which external expectations were a tempered with a younger Yanks team, you could say they're playing with house money. But there's still a lot of experience on that roster, including unexpected Game 5 starter CC Sabathia.

Kluber is going to have to be on top of his game -- something he clearly wasn't in Game 2.

Video: MLB.com previews Game 5 between Indians and Yankees

"You could tell right from the beginning that he was fighting it," Francona said of that outing. "'I thought, and [pitching coach Mickey Callaway] agreed, he had been fighting it the last couple [outings]. He had been getting under some balls. The last lineup with the White Sox, it was against some younger guys. I think we felt like maybe under some different circumstances he might have given up some runs that game. I think he did, too."

Kluber indicated he's identified a mechanical flaw causing the command problem. It's also worth noting that his past three trips to the mound came after extra rest. For the season, Kluber's ERA and OPS+ marks were markedly worse on five and six days' rest than with the typical four.

"Sometimes if you're not feeling good and you have things to iron out, the extra day works out well," Kluber said. "And sometimes when you're on a roll, you don't want the extra day. I think that if you go out there and don't pitch well and blame it on having an extra day, it's just a cop-out."

There are no cop-outs now. Only Kluber. On regular rest. In a Game 5 that brings us back to the Tito thesis in a weird way. You can't win today if you're thinking about tomorrow? That's more true than ever. Because if the Indians don't win the Game 5 they prepared for all along, there is no tomorrow.

Anthony Castrovince has been a reporter for MLB.com since 2004. Read his columns and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince.

This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

Cleveland Indians, Corey Kluber